Asian Editors Circle

Sexist politicians are a universal pain

Let's stop blaming Mr Donald Trump for our misogynistic world. Even without him, there are plenty of men in leadership positions who think women are just fair game.

Before Mr Trump, there was former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who was an early post-truth politician. He was just 1.65m tall but Mr Berlusconi thought he was God's gift to women and his list of sexual scandals and sexist gaffes is legendary.

Former British prime minister David Cameron was roasted in 2011 when he told Labour MP Angela Eagle, "Calm down, dear", which critics pounced on, declaring that his response revealed what he really thought of women: emotional and hysterical.

Asian male politicians are just as prone to making sexist remarks.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a visit to Dhaka last year, lauded Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her "unshakeable resolve" in fighting terrorism. But he then spoilt it by adding, "despite being a woman".

Another Indian politician, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, reportedly said at an election rally: "First girls become friends with boys. Then when they have differences, girls level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape?"

During a heated debate in Parliament last month, Malaysian Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Tajuddin Abdul Rahman made a vulgar pun on DAP MP Teresa Kok's surname, igniting a firestorm of protest from the opposition. He refused to apologise. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Over in Japan, a Tokyo city councillor made international headlines in 2014 when he was forced to apologise to a female colleague for heckling her during a meeting. Mr Akihiro Suzuki told Ms Ayaka Shiomura to "hurry up and get married" when she raised questions on measures to help pregnant women and young mothers.

And then there is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The latest incident saw him making inappropriate remarks to Vice-President Leni Robredo on her looks and "nice legs" at an event marking the third anniversary of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in Tacloban City.

But all these sexist jibes pale in comparison to the unforgivably nasty barb a Malaysian deputy minister threw at opposition MP Teresa Kok in Parliament last month. During a heated debate over a rally organised by Bersih, a movement calling for electoral reform, Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Tajuddin Abdul Rahman sniggered: "Why is Seputeh going 'kekekeke'? The only woman with a 'Kok' is in Seputeh."

He was obviously making fun of her surname, a common Chinese family name which sounds the same as the slang word for male genitalia. Ms Kok is a fourth-term MP for the Seputeh constituency in Kuala Lumpur.

Datuk Seri Tajuddin's tasteless remark ignited a firestorm of protest from the opposition. He refused to apologise and went on to make fun of another woman MP by mimicking the way she spoke.

Mr Tajuddin's sexist remark actually topped backbencher Bung Moktar Radin's crude dig at a woman MP in 2007.

The then MP for the Batu Gajah seat, Ms Fong Poh Kuan, had complained to the Speaker about the roof in Parliament leaking every time it rained.

Datuk Bung, the MP for the Kinabatangan seat in Sabah, jumped up to make a crack: "Where is the leak? Batu Gajah leaks every month too."

Yes, we should expect better from our elected representatives. But judging by the many examples we have, such behaviour and attitudes in male politicians are quite universal.

It's been 21 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women, which resulted in the Women's Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, hailed as "the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women's rights" and covering 12 areas of concern such as education, health, influence and decision-making, human rights, and violence against women and girls.

The ultimate objective is gender equality and women empowerment by ending discrimination against the female sex.

Significant gains and progress have been made especially in education, employment opportunities and healthcare. 

But there are still big gaps.

Where influence and decision-making are concerned, as of June this year, only 22.8 per cent of all parliamentarians were women, a dismal increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995 and still short of the United Nations target of 30 per cent, according to UN Women, the global body working to ensure gender equality.

Not only are they a minority, but they are also subjected to shocking sexual harassment, as revealed by the first Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report on sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, released just a month before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, on Nov 25.

It confirmed what former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard told women aspiring to be politicians: "Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily."

The IPU report surveyed 55 female MPs from 39 countries and found that 81.8 per cent responded that they had "been subjected personally to one or more acts of psychological violence".

This included "sexist or sexually humiliating remarks, gestures and images" and "threats and harassment which fell outside the normal political debate which is combative and even rough by nature".

The survey found that almost two-thirds had been subjected to humiliating sexist remarks and 44.4 per cent had received threats of rape, beatings, abduction and even death.

Even worse, 22 per cent actually experienced sexual violence, while 33 per cent had witnessed sexual violence against female colleagues in Parliament.

And who were the perpetrators? Their male colleagues from the opposition and even their own parties.

IPU secretary-general Martin Chungong said the study showed the need for Parliaments to tackle sexism. "Parliaments need to put their own House in order if they want to lead by example and stop discrimination and violence against women in all walks of life," he said.

Indeed, if lawmakers and leaders of countries can't guarantee a mutually respectful workplace for men and women, how can we expect other public spaces and workplaces to be any better?

UN Women said that across Asia, studies in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea show that 30 per cent to 40 per cent of women suffer workplace sexual harassment.

But changing attitudes that are so ingrained will not happen easily, especially in many Asian countries which are still patriarchal in structure and treat women as inferior.

So what's the best response to misogynistic men?

Mrs Michelle Obama's advice is: "When they go low, we go high."

That may be a great sound bite, but if going high means maintaining a dignified silence or ignoring the perpetrator, I don't think that's enough. I say, give back as good as you get.

Instead of getting angry, get even because showing you're hurt is exactly what these men want to see.

Years ago, as a teenager walking home, I was followed by a man who had been seen lurking around in the neighbourhood before. He turned out to be a flasher.

I managed to remain calm, put on a sneer and even laughed at his pathetic display. The shock on the man's face was priceless. Instead of me running away in tears and fear, he ran off instead.

I never saw him again.

Giving men like him a taste of their own medicine might just be part of the cure.

  • The writer was the group chief editor of The Star Media Group Malaysia. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Sexist politicians are a universal pain'. Print Edition | Subscribe